China, Botswana diplomatic fallout

SHARE   |   Wednesday, 20 July 2016   |   By Phillimon Mmeso
President Khama and Chinese Ambassador Zhuqiang President Khama and Chinese Ambassador Zhuqiang

The fragile Sino-Botswana diplomatic relations suffered a major blow on Wednesday when the Chinese Embassy openly showed its displeasure by disregarding a request by Botswana to postpone a media briefing on the outcome of the arbitration on the South China Sea  to a later date. The media had to wait for hours at the Chinese Embassy on Wednesday for the scheduled press briefing to take place as the officials had been summoned to the Office of the President by President Ian Khama. Sources at the Chinese Embassy have revealed that upon learning about the press briefing, Khama summoned Chinese Ambassador Zhuqiang to his office to persuade him to postpone it until the two countries have discussed the issue. “President Khama informed our Ambassador that he cannot hold a press briefing before he briefs him about developments on the South China Sea dispute,” revealed a source. The Chinese officials  defied Khama and disregarded his instruction by going ahead with the press briefing. The strained relations between the two states has been deteriorating over Botswana’s recent veiled criticism of China over the South China Sea dispute accusing Beijing of imposing “its power over others to make claims because of its economy or military might".

China did not take kindly to the statement by Botswana, which caught them by surprise because they were never consulted on the issue prior to the statement. At the height of the tension the Chinese Embassy in Gaborone was temporarily closed and operations supended, allegedly on instructions from China President Jinping. China demanded a retraction from Botswana, which culminated in a hastily convened meeting between Embassy officials and  the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi. Soon thereafter Venson-Moitoi promptly convened a media briefing, but did not apologise to China reiterating that Botswana enjoys freedom to take a position on any matter of international concern. China has since declared null and void, and of no binding force an award by the Arbitral Tribunal on July 12, 2016 over the South China Sea dispute. At the Wednesday briefing,  Zhuqiang said China has support over their claim from more than 60 countries of which half are from Africa. Asked if Botswana is one of the African countries that have openly supported them he answered in the negative, but was quick to add that they hope Gaborone will support them.

In a side interview after the press briefing, Chinese Ambassador Zhuqiang confirmed that they were summoned to OP to brief Khama about their stance on the Arbitral Tribunal outcome. He only revealed that Khama asked them about the history of the dispute, but declined to go into further details of what transpired at the meeting. Asked if during their impromptu meeting with Khama, the President showed any sign of supporting them, Zhuqiang said he is not sure. On allegations that Khama requested them to postpone the press briefing, Zhuqiang refused to answer the question. Most countries, including United States of America (USA), have exercised quiet diplomacy to ease the tension currently brewing in the Asian continent.  Efforts to calm the waters following the tribunal ruling in The Hague on Tuesday suffered a setback when Taiwan dispatched a warship to the area, with President Tsai Ing-wen telling sailors that their mission was to defend Taiwan's maritime territory.

Meanwhile Zhuqiang has maintained that they want the issue to be resolved peacefully and have no intention of showing military aggression. Efforts to get comment from government spokesperson Jeff Ramsay were futile at the time of going to press as he did not respond to the questionnaire sent to him. The Patriot on Sunday wanted to know Botswana’s position regarding the outcome of the arbitration and whether they also support China. The publication also sought to verify information about Khama's meeting  with the Chinese at his office.